Duke Conference to Examine Gender and Philosophy

An April conference will examine the role of under-represented women in philosophy

Emilie du Chatelet, a French philosopher whose legacy is being reexamined by Project Vox.
Emilie du Chatelet, a French philosopher whose legacy is being reexamined by Project Vox.

A year ago, a team of Duke University scholars unveiled a new website with the modest goal of providing unusual and hard-to-get teaching resources to philosophy professors.

But the initiative, called Project Vox, took root among scholars in the field, promoted in particular by proponents of influential female philosophers largely lost to history.

In its short life, Project Vox, which aims to bring those female thinkers to the fore of modern philosophy education, has taken off.

“The expected audience worldwide would have been make 3,000 – there’s maybe that many philosophy teachers out there,” says Andrew Janiak, a Duke philosophy professor and leader of the project. “But we’ve had 19,000 original visitors. It’s well past what we expected.”

Buoyed by a series of grants, Vox is now getting a facelift, with a new website debuting soon. And a $64,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is allowing Janiak and his team to host a three-day conference April 14-17 at Duke where roughly 30 philosophers from the United States and seven other countries will discuss the growing role of females in teaching their craft.

The conference, to be held at Smith Warehouse, will analyze the work of females over the last four centuries whose work was well regarded in their time but often pushed to the edges by male leaders of the field. Janiak’s team has spent years now digging through old texts, letters and other documents from philosophers such as Emilie du Chatelet, a French Newtonian mechanics scholar in the 1700s, and Damaris Cudworth “Lady” Masham, an English philosopher in the late 1600’s.

By unearthing their work, translating them when needed and making them available on the Project Vox website, Janiak’s team provides access to new resources for philosophy instructors.

The goal is to prompt small but noticeable changes in how philosophy is taught. And in mining the writings of females whose work has been largely unnoticed, today’s scholars may stumble on something new.

“When you talk about Shakespeare or Descartes or Cervantes, you aren’t going to discover something new,” Janiak says. “But if you talk about some of our (female) figures, you could be the first to discover something.”

Across the discipline, Project Vox is already having an impact, says Marcy Lascano, an associate professor of philosophy at California State University Long Beach. Along with its general promotion of under-studied female figures, Project Vox’s resources, like sample course syllabi, have proven useful to educators, said Lascano, co-principal investigator for the NEH grant.

“My research is on early modern women and people often write me to ask for advice on bringing women into their courses,” Lascano said. “I always tell them that they should look at Project Vox. It has brought much needed attention to the difficulties in teaching and working on early modern women philosophers.”